August 22, 2011 10:33 pm

Tory takes countryside battle to middle England

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A growing row over the coalition’s planning policy has been presented as a straightforward squabble between developers and green charities over the meadows of rural Britain.

The National Trust says the reforms could lead to “unchecked and damaging development in the undesignated countryside” on a scale not seen since the 1930s.

Yet Greg Clark, the planning minister, argues that his reforms can produce hundreds of thousands of new homes across the country without a rash of vast housing estates springing up on the greenbelt. “The principal campaigning point seems to be the loss of the greenbelt,” he says. “There is nothing in the policy that would lead to a significant loss of greenbelt.”

New homes would appear on greenbelt land only through the coalition’s small-scale “community right to build”, which would see tiny clusters of up to a dozen homes only where the vast majority of locals vote in favour.

Nevertheless, Mr Clark hopes that the new “presumption in favour of sustainable development” could help revive Britain’s housebuilding industry and address what he terms the housebuilding “crisis”.

The construction industry has warmly welcomed the policy. David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation – representing social housing providers – calls it “possibly the most useful thing the coalition government has done”.

But environmentalists have taken a starkly opposing view, with Mr Clark livid at some of the “exaggerated” and “misleading” language deployed by campaigners.

Chart: UK housebuilding

“The National Trust had on their website an aerial shot of Los Angeles in some risible idea that this was the future for Britain,” he says. “If you can square a village voting for 10 new homes for its parishioners with the sprawl of Beverly Hills or Santa Monica, I fail to see it.”

This direct criticism of the charity is potentially dangerous, given the overlapping membership of the Conservative party and the National Trust.

He also risks offending Tory voters by condemning the Campaign to Protect Rural England, saying: “Frankly you couldn’t change any element of national planning policy without the CPRE objecting to it; they have objected to every change in planning policy for as long as I can remember.”

But Mr Clark is determined to win the argument, at the risk of upsetting some voters and even his own backbenchers.

Under the new planning policy, local authorities will be obliged to write local planning strategies which incorporate the new “presumption for sustainable development”.

This follow’s last summer’s planning shake-up, when the coalition scrapped Labour’s top-down housing targets and introduced a “localism” policy designed to hand more powers to local communities. Critics point to an inherent tension between localism and the presumption for development.

Tom Symons of the New Local Government Network think-tank says the localism drive is giving communities a “louder voice” in the planning process. But, he adds: “The ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ means that this voice is only heard if the community is in favour of more development.”

Mr Clark is to the left of his party, as a former Social Democrat. He sees the need for more construction not only in terms of Britain’s precarious economic state but also through the lens of social inequality. There is a “moral” imperative to get homes built for young people on low incomes. “Last year was the lowest level of housebuilding since world war II, which means the problem is getting worse and worse, causing more misery for more people for as long as this isn’t addressed.”

A failure to build more homes would represent a “huge social injustice”. The wider public accepts more needs to be done to tackle the housing shortage, he insists. “People do have an interest in the future – to not care shows a degree of nihilistic selfishness which is quite rare.”

Strong opinions on both sides of the fence

The proposal The draft national planning policy framework calls for a presumption in favour of sustainable development “that is the basis for every plan, and every decision”.

It says: “The government is committed to ensuring that the planning system does everything it can to support sustainable economic growth ... Planning must operate to encourage growth and not act as an impediment. Therefore significant weight should be placed on the need to support economic growth through the planning system.”

Employers Katja Hall, chief policy director at the CBI, has said the presumption in favour of development would “balance the shift towards localism”. “This should send out a strong signal to local authorities that it is possible to grow the economy while behaving responsibly to our environment,” she said. “The publication of this new framework is a chance for the government to rebuild investor confidence in a planning system which has been shaken by a year of rapid reforms and ripped-up policy.”

Developers The construction industry is delighted with the policy. David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, which represents social housing providers, calls it “possibly the most useful thing the coalition government has done”.

The CPRE The Campaign to Protect Rural England warns that the proposal will place the countryside under threat as the economy struggles to recover from recession.

Shaun Spiers, chief executive, says on the CPRE website: “The new framework will make the countryside and local character much less safe from damaging and unnecessary development. If it is not amended, there will be battles against development across the country that will make the public revolt against the sale of the forests look like a tea party.”

National Trust The National Trust has voiced “grave concerns” over the planning reforms. Dame Fiona Reynolds, director-general, says on the conservation charity’s website: “Weakening protection now risks a return to the threat of sprawl and uncontrolled development that so dominated public debate in the 1930s ...

“The proposals allow financial considerations to dominate, and with this comes huge risk to our countryside, historic environment and the precious local places that people value.”

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